The first time I sat down in a theatre at Sundance, I burst into tears.
I was in public; they were not heaving, crazy-person tears. But just after I filed into my row at the Egyptian, the beautiful old-school movie house on Park City’s Main Street, I looked up at the screen. Whatever logo and catchphrase the programmers had selected for that year’s festival shone brightly, projected from a light that appeared almost divine, and I leaned back against the plush seats (I’m not sure anymore, but I think the seats were made from a burgundy velvet), and I could not believe that I was there.
How did I get there? Well, it’s a mix of luck, a well-connected new family member – and acting like a total brat.
Allow me to walk you through it.
When I was twenty, my mother married Jack, a man she’s still married to today. Jack’s a business kind of guy. He’s very good friends with other business people because that, it seems, is just how the real world works. And one of his long-time friends, now retired, lives in bucolic Park City, home of one of the world’s premier film festivals, in a house on top of a mountain, built out of glass so that even while you’re peeing you can see the majestic landscape.
For years – well over a decade – Jack had gone to Sundance. He told me stories of how there used to be no lines, that the festival’s workers would pull people out of the eating establishments on Main Street and all but shoo them into an empty theater. Times have changed – blame Soderbergh and the Weinsteins – but there are no barren theatres anymore.
There’s also no parking.
Soon after my mom and Jack fell in love, I got an excited call from them one crisp autumn afternoon. When they called me from the car, it was both of them speaking (screaming) over one another to tell the same story.
I’d pretend it was an adorable habit, but I’m not a fucking liar.
Early in their relationship, when Jack was just this new person in my life who I knew meant well but had frankly complicated a home life that had once been relatively calm, the tag-team phone calls bothered me more than they do today. Today I just tell them to stop screaming or I simply get off the phone quickly. Back then? I think I was in a state of shock that my family had become car-phone shriekers.
It’s a hard thing to accept.
Anyhoo, during one of those high-decibel calls, I was told (by both, of course) that they had exciting news:
My mother would be going to the Sundance Film Festival with Jack that year!
They would be seeing about ten films!
They would be renting a mansion!
They had to be fucking kidding me.
Now, I’ve got some selfish tendencies, what with being human and all. I didn’t begrudge my mother love, and I certainly didn’t feel bitter that she was traveling in the way she used to dream she could travel. But to call me – the one who had majored in Film, the one who earned a livingteaching Film – to tell me that you were off to a place I wanted to go more than other girls dream of tribal-tattooed guys walking along the beaches of Cabo?
No. Just – no.
I’m not proud of myself, but I also learned that you’re not going to get what you want in life by sitting back and morosely wishing you would have been given an opportunity you wanted. So I spoke up, and I boldly said that I should get to go too.
I shake my head at my past self a little now when I think of the wording of that request: I shouldget to go. Should? Why should I? Because I wanted it? Okay, but it’s not like I earned my place at that festival. I cringe now, imagining myself similar to the pieces of dogshit featured on My Super Sweet 16, girls with no kindness or self-awareness sweeping through vast closets, showing off row upon row of quilted Chanel, looking blankly into the camera and saying, “What? I deserve all of this.”
I didn’t deserve anything, other than perhaps a small medal for making it through the newest triathlon of family lunacy – and by that I mean dinner on a random Thursday – but I wanted to go. I wanted to go so badly. And I don’t know if it was Jack wanting me to like him or my mother wanting to simply give me a good experience, but next thing I knew, I was flying off to Park City, sucking down shrimp in first class.
It was cold in Utah in January, but not any colder than it had been in New York. We rented a Range Rover, and my mother, Jack, my brother Devin and I drove first to Jack’s friend’s house. I had been to Colorado before, but the winding drive to the tippy top of a mountain in Park City was the first time I ever felt the effect of altitude. My head hurt a little, but I pushed it aside, so agape I was of my surroundings.
Howard lived in a house that seemed built into the side of the mountain. All of the walls were constructed from glass. The kitchen was huge with an enormous island, the kind of kitchen you have if you actually cook. From room to room, you were always walking down or up steps. Fireplaces were everywhere. And two golden retrievers roamed happily, the luckiest pooches anywhere on the planet.
At Howard’s, wine was passed around, and Howard, whom I had never met, looked at me closely and asked if I was old enough to drink.
“I’m 24,” I told him.
“You’re older than my date,” this fifty-something man exclaimed back, laughing.
“And I’m certain she’s drawn to your sparkling personality and not your wallet,” I said back to him.
Howard looked at me, his eyebrow arched. I stared back, meeting his eyes.
“You’re a tough one,” he said. “I like you.”
From then on, he and I adored each other. And apparently, he’s a man who doesn’t like women in general, the same way, I guess, I don’t like cats. Maybe women make his eyes get red and teary? At any rate, it’s always been a special skill of mine to make difficult men find me intelligent and charming. It’s like how other people are good at Excel.
As a well-connected guy in town, Howard was able to snag huge numbers of tickets to screenings throughout the week, and they were divided between my family and two other couples, also friends of my parents, who were attending the festival. I had never met these people; my mother and Jack were still a newish couple. But my mother had met them many times, and they seemed rather friendly to her, and one of the wives was very friendly to me as well. The other one was dismissive of me for days, until it came out over lunch one day that one of my close friends worked for a cable network, and then she was my best friend forever. Seriously – if she was more dexterous, she would’ve weaved me a friendship bracelet, especially since her daughter was currently looking for a job in production, and though I saw so clearly through her motives, I smiled politely and pretended that maybe later we could braid each other’s hair.
At that first screening though, the morning after we had left Howard’s gorgeous home and checked into our four-level wooden ski chalet-style mansion, I sat in the Egyptian Theatre and I teared up for real.
“Are you okay?” my mother asked, concerned.
“I just cannot believe that I’m here,” I whispered.
She clasped my hand tightly and I felt in her warm touch how much it meant to her that I was so happy and so grateful – and how truly thrilled she was that she had been able to give me this experience.
“What is she crying about?” boomed the woman who didn’t know that in three short days she’d be up my ass, trying to help her own daughter.
“She’s just happy to be here,” my mother responded.
“This might not even be a good movie,” the walking creature of misery said. “I’ve never even heard of the director.” She was paging through the festival program as she spoke, shaking it for emphasis.
“He was the D.P. on a few of Spike Lee’s films,” I said. I didn’t even bother to look at her when I said it. The moment was about my dream becoming real, not about a rich woman who sat in a theatre just so she could go back to New York in a week and let it come out at a cocktail party, as she made sure to sound as bored as she possibly could, that she had just been at Sundance.
I saw through her. People that empty are never that hard to read.
That week, I saw fourteen movies, often seeing three in a row. Some were brilliant, some were plodding and terrible, and some just had good performances. After Owning Mahoney, which was decent, I walked over to the front of the stage and told Philip Seymour Hoffman that I thought he was the most interesting actor I had ever seen and that he literally made the world of film better simply by being a part of it. He took my hand and he thanked me kindly, and I was dying to ask him to say the line from Almost Famous that his character said over and over again – “Be honest and unmerciful” – but I probably would’ve fainted dead away and been trampled by people who were trying to leave the Egyptian and get to the next screening across town.
I didn’t ski at all while I was in Utah. I just saw movies. And when I came home and went back to work, I brought with me the name of a filmmaker I had met and gave it to the Chairperson of my department. With one phone call, she brought him to speak at a conference at our district just two weeks after he won the Academy Award for the film I had seen at the festival.
From that point on, for years I was able to go to Sundance and have my district consider it Professional Development – which it was. Only after I got a new Chairperson who sucked would that kind of absence become a problem.
The next two years that I went, two things changed: we stayed at Howard’s house, and my best friend joined us.
Those were my favorite Sundance years. Howard had reconnected with a woman who was lovely and fun and age-appropriate, a woman he would soon marry, and the empty bedrooms in his house were perfect accommodations for the rest of us.
I would shower in my glass-walled bathroom, and I’d watch the skiers in the distance as they descended down the mountain outside of my window. Becky and I combined our clothing and our jewelry in her bedroom upstairs, and though we really only wore jeans and shirts that week, we were decked out every day in one another’s accessories.
She would do my makeup every night before we went out, using more smoky grey shadow than I was used to.
“Now remember,” I would caution her as I sat still on the closed toilet seat, her breath on my cheek as she leaned close to apply an extra coat of eyeliner. “I want to look like a whore, but not a whore who has recently been beaten.”
And she would laugh and her hand would shake and we would need lots of makeup remover to clean me up before she would start again.
After a day of movies with my parents, she and I would go out. Sometimes we’d go to dinner first with the whole group – and there were some amazing dinners – but sometimes it would just be us and we would get a taxi into town and we would start at one end of Main Street and we would walk up and down, looking into chic shops, spending far too much on tight tees, hopping into a bar to grab a drink, and often leaving those bars quickly because you could still smoke in bars in Utah back then, and after ten minutes, it was hard to breathe.
We met guys every place we went, and we carried on mini-flings that lasted until we were ready to move to the bar next door. One guy gave us weed to keep us from leaving, but we just accepted his gift and moved on. Later that week, having no bowl and no papers, we essentially smoked it out of a filthy sock, and to this day, it is one of the funniest things I have ever experienced.
Having my best friend with me also made it possible to attend those midnight screening, the ones my parents didn’t love to go to, and two of them stand tall and bold in the hellish portions of my memory.
Sundance, Year 2, the first with Becky:
We were stone cold sober, and I was trying to convince her that yes, she hated scary movies, but she might love this one. It was playing at midnight and it was Japanese horror, and really, how bad could it be? This was Sundance!
Three Extremes began, and the theatre was filled to the brim. There was not one empty seat. The attendees of the midnight screenings tended to be a festive, movie-loving bunch, and were often at the very least buzzed from reveling in the bars next door to the theatre before the movie began.
At the precise moment that the character onscreen had an abortion in extreme close-up, forty people got up – en mass – and left the theatre.
I had never seen an exodus like that, ever.
Becky was curled into a fetal position on the seat next to me, murmuring safe words to herself, probably contemplating getting a new best friend, when the character onscreen leaned in and then ate the fetus, also in extreme close-up, slurping that not-quite-a-baby down.
Sixty more people got up and left, their horrified reactions loud and angry.
Becky started chanting words of comfort to herself. I think I heard her quote an old Hebrew proverb and maybe some Bob Dylan.
“I know you want to leave,” I whispered so that I wouldn’t disturb the nine other people who were still sitting in the theatre. “And you’re right; this movie is fucking awful on a level that awful has never been. But I’m starting to think that if we are the last ones in the theatre when the lights come up, we might win a prize. So hang tight, okay?”
My best friend looked over at me, horrified. This was a girl who had come on blind dates with me. She had driven to a town on the Delaware shore to meet up with a guitarist I had a crush on. She let me move into her tiny Manhattan – with my dog – for days on end. She knew, and so did I, that I was asking way too much of her. But she also knew how much I loved gift bags and swag and the shitty tattoo that’s the prize inside of the Cracker Jack box, and that we were not leaving that theatre.
At a certain point, I think she simply convinced her own psyche to black out on itself and she put herself to sleep.
The lights eventually came up. The movie had gotten worse, not better. Less than ten people remained, and the director, who appeared at the front of the room after the closing credits scrolled by, looked shocked. Upon seeing he had nothing in his hands that would be given to us as a survival prize, I woke Becky, and the two of us hobbled out of the theater like we had survived a gory war.
The next day, as we tried to articulate the terrible things we had born witness to, we realized that there was no way to make someone who hadn’t been through the experience understand – and we felt strong for surviving it all.
The next year, we tried again.
In the Realms of the Unreal.
It was a documentary about an agoraphobic who created his own fictional world.
What could go wrong?
Once again the movie started and the theatre was packed. Becky and I had a huge popcorn we were sharing, and the night felt cozy and kind of great.
And then Dakota Fanning’s name appeared in the opening credits.
Becky is afraid of Dakota Fanning.
I don’t know why she is afraid of this tiny blonde girl, and I have no idea from whence this fear sprung forth. All I know is that her terror is real, and she looked over at me, her eyes wide with trepidation.
Since the previous year I had made my best friend watch an edible abortion, I leaned over and asked her if she wanted to leave. I honestly didn’t care; we had already seen three movies that day and we had met Peter Travers, the critic for Rolling Stone, and we had sang the song from Hustle and Flow to each other for hours. I could call it a day.
“No, I’m okay," she muttered in the dark, and we settled back to watch the documentary.
What we couldn’t possibly tell from the compelling title and the brisk, engaging blurb about the movie in the program was that the movie would be fucking boring. Or that, at some point during the film, animated cats would appear onscreen.
I hate cats. They scare me. And the only thing that scares me more than cats are things that fly that are not supposed to fly – and at that moment, the animated cats sprouted bony wings and flew clear across the huge movie screen.
“Oh, my good God,” I whispered, and we looked at each other in the dark and wordlessly got up to leave.
As we stood in front of the theatre, laughing hysterically about both of our fears being brought to visualization, I nudged Becky and pointed at the scruffy blonde guy a few feet away.
“I hooked up with him a few summers ago in New York,” I said. “He’s the Blair Witch guy.”
“Want to go say hi?” Becky asked.
“Nope,” I responded.
I’d had enough weirdness for one day.
All together, I went to Sundance for four years. Every time I was there, I met a filmmaker who then came to my school to present his or her work to my students.
I saw some amazing movies.
I watched Vera Farminga play a drug addict in a haunting film and then become a star.
I once sat in front of the director of Super Size Me.
I told a man who directed a documentary about the sexual abuse his sisters had experienced at the hands of their father that I couldn’t get his family out of my head, and he hugged me right there, as I stood in line for my next film.
I drank wine in dark clubs and I ate soufflé on the top of a mountain.
I spent hours upon hours with my mother and my stepfather, and one day, as we got out of the car, I accidentally called him “Dad.”
“I just called you ‘Dad,’” I said to him, acknowledging the moment.
“I know,” said Jack. “I liked it.”
“I’m not going to call you that, though, okay? But I do love you.”
“You can call me whatever you want, sweetheart,” he responded, and that was perhaps the perfect response.
I spent, in those years, hours on end with my closest friend in the world as we saw movie after movie, and it never once got old.
I got to turn a fantasy into a reality.
I am a truly lucky girl.